KONA, Hawaii – As a child growing up in the 1980s, an era synonymous with the “Jaws” movie and its notorious theme song conducted by John Williams, Australian military Veteran Paul de Gelder came of age in the sunburned outback with an ever-present fear of sharks.
Then, on a murky and overcast morning in early 2009, while testing Navy equipment in Sydney Harbor, a bull shark ripped off de Gelder’s right arm and leg.
He thought he was dead. But in the years since, a whole new lease on life has emerged. In a somewhat strange twist of fate, the attack didn’t deter Paul from the waters nor from befriending sharks, Instead, it drew him toward becoming a staunch advocate of protecting the elasmobranch fish.
“My biggest fears were always sharks and public speaking. I thought sharks were useless. I thought they were just these things in the ocean that wanted only to beat us and bite us and all that crap,” Paul tells me. “But I have gone from hating sharks to understanding how important they are in our world and what little interest they have in humans. The shark doesn’t give a shit about you; you aren’t what they want to eat.”
Now a staple of Discovery’s annual “Shark Week” and an author of the new book “Shark: Why We Need to Save the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator,” the now U.S.-based de Gelder is sounding the alarm when it comes to this increasingly endangered species.
He stresses the notion that human beings are not a shark’s chosen cuisine and notes that his onslaught stemmed from a rare case of mistaken identity. After all, Paul was flapping around in a sleek black wetsuit and fins in the early hours beneath a low sun – the exact time when the primarily nocturnal creatures wade into shallower waters for food – mainly seals.
Since the attack more than 23 years ago, Paul has surveyed, examined, and swum in open waters with everything from Great White Sharks and Hammerheads to Blockheads and beyond. He’s a salt-of-the-earth type who wasted no time adjusting to his new life. A few days after the incident while still in the hospital room, de Gelder doggedly imagined and plotted ways he could still jump out of planes, dive, workout, and roam the earth with an eye for adventure despite his lost limbs.
“I didn’t want to wallow in self-pity and get stuck on the slippery slope of ‘woe is me.’ I just wanted to get on with life. I needed my physicality back, and I knew my mind would follow,” he told me at the time, noting that he got down on the hospital floor and started with one-arm pushups within days of the incident.
However, the Veteran’s life today, with a mega platform to share a message of shark love and human resilience, may be even more fulfilling than his time in uniform.
“I don’t look back on it as a negative occurrence. It just happened. People around me have much harder lives than me,” Paul insists. “It’s not worth complaining about – you just get on with it. I have big dreams.”
Moreover, floating with the majestic animals in the wild – and standing up for their conservation, including becoming a prominent vegan against eating any sea or land beings – has become self-therapy for the survivor. When we first met in a Los Angeles newsroom in the Spring of 2016, Paul detailed with his dry-humored Aussie nonchalance that after being “ripped apart in the water,” sharks became a source of strength.
“The more you learn about sharks, the more you want to spend time around them. It’s about knowledge; knowledge dispels fear. We need them in the oceans. It’s not our backyard,” he asserts. “The more you can teach people about them, the more you can get people to respect animals and protect them. That’s what I want to do.”
Paul doesn’t necessarily see his role as leading the shark conservation charge but rather as a “conduit” to help disseminate what he learns to his hundreds of thousands of fans and social media followers.
“There are so many people out there doing way more than I am. The difference is that I have a platform and can utilize all the work these other incredible people are doing to raise awareness, change shark fishing legislation, or teach people about sharks’ importance,” he continues.
Ironically, learning of Paul’s attack years ago piqued my curiosity about our vast oceans, which make up more than 70 percent of our planet, and the life of sharks in today’s modern world.
On a recent trip to Hawaii, spanning Oahu’s surf-famed North Shore to the crystal blue seas of the Big Island’s Kona, I managed to experience a dive in the early hours with a 12-foot Tiger Shark as well as the requiem Galapagos and regal White Tip reef sharks just chilling below a crater 60 feet down on the ocean floor. (The Hawaiian Islands are home to around 40 species of sharks).
It felt akin to a luminous daydream, fluttering through cool waters and streams of dawn summer light beside the shark’s silvery blue skin, an essential element of the ocean the same way the earthworm shields and recuperates our earthen biosystems. Roxy, as she is named, helps keep the water world in harmony by preserving flora and keeping predator numbers in balance.
Sadly, her fin was pierced a deep red, and her jaw knocked out of alignment – evidence that at some point, she had been hooked and tossed back to die, which the shark experts told me happened a year ago from reports of a skinny, feeble mama shark struggling through the seas unable to move or sufficiently eat.
Now, Roxy is pregnant again.
Generally, females (who grow larger than their male counterparts) stay away from the male populations, says Eric from Hawaii’s North Shore company called Shark Encounters. Eric, a California native with surfer blond curls and an extra chill demeanor, suddenly turns serious.
“If we don’t change now, sharks will be extinct in 28 years,” he cautions darkly. “Sharks are important to our oceans; they keep the seaweed and algae healthy. If we lose them, we are going to lose what actually keeps the air and humans here.”
A person has a significantly higher chance of dying from falling out of bed or being struck by lightning (1 in two million and 1 in 1 million, respectively) than being bitten by a shark. The odds of that happening stands at about 1 in 3.8 million. But on the rare occasion, as Paul de Gelder can attest, it happens.
Swimmers account for 26 percent of all shark attacks, followed by four percent on free divers/snorkelers, five percent for body surfers, and four percent for scuba divers.
However, these experts assure me that almost always, it’s a case of confused identity. Sharks prefer to feast on seals, crustaceans, turtles, fish, and other sharks. The human body doesn’t have enough meat and fat to satisfy their burgeoning bellies, and if they do take a bite of a homo sapiens, they will commonly spit us out.
On another morning tucked inside the Big Island’s Kona, Carlos Barrios of Jack’s Diving Locker guides me down beneath the blue-green waves. An Army brat who bounced from base to base, he went on to join the elite FBI dive team. After retiring in 2009, Carlos started working as a scientific diver at an aquarium in Southern California, where his true bond with sharks was forged.
“There was a Tiger – pretty menacing looking, rows and rows of teeth. But they have so many they can’t close their teeth all the way. So, I would get close, and it was a puppy dog almost, and when I had to lift the nurse shark to clean the sand underneath, it was the same thing,” he recalls with a smile.
“If they can see you, you are certainly no threat. They can identify you and see that you aren’t on their menu. It is only when visibility is bad that attacks could happen because of misidentification.”
On average, there are around four to six unprovoked fatal attacks worldwide each year. When it takes place, of course, it makes headline news. But let’s be real, shark attacks are very few and far between.
And even though the resonance of the word “Shark!” while wading in the foam will almost always propel us to run for our lives, only five percent of over 500 species of sharks have ever been implicated in a strike – provoked or unprovoked – on humans. So, on the very unusual occasion that a shark’s impressive teeth meet human flesh, it will generally be a Great White, Tiger, or Bull.
Instead, it’s humans with blood on their hands. Humans slaughter upwards of 100 million sharks per year. That converts to over 11,000 deaths every hour. The majority of that comes down to international demand for shark fin soup. While China may be the largest buyer and consumer, I was shocked to learn that Spain was the world’s biggest supplier of the horrifically cruel killing method.
Eric tells me in haunting detail how the fins are severed, and the creature is often released back into the water. Without its fin, it cannot swim nor breathe and instead plummets to the bottom of the sea floor to suffocate and drown a slow and suffering death.
“It has got to be the cruelest annihilation of a species or an animal I have ever heard of,” he says sadly.
European countries – led by Spain and followed by Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and Italy –monopolize half of the Asian shark fin trade, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The EU technically outlawed the barbaric practice of slicing off the fin while the shark is still alive, but the landing and sale of whole sharks are still primarily permitted.
The finning, overfishing, and pollution of the seas with plastic and other toxins are pushing sharks to the brink of extinction. Some species are already gone, while 25 percent are currently listed as endangered.
“The sharks take care of the reefs, so this is a serious problem,” Carlos underscores. “And certainly, if you see fin soup on the menu, don’t buy that.”
As apex predators and natural-born hunters, sharks keep certain species from becoming too intrusive. They help support diversity in the seas, protect coral reefs, and balance the food chain. Furthermore, they eat sick and weak animals (whale carcass is a delicacy), thus maintaining the health of two-thirds of planet earth. If sharks vanish, the ripple effect on the ecosystem, food security, and human survival could be boundless.
“Sharks have these extra senses that help them feel any electric frequencies in the water, and that is how they determine what they are going to eat,” Eric explains. “Because they can decipher which fish is healthy versus unhealthy. Every heartbeat and muscle contraction is electrical, so weak heartbeats are the targets. Healthy fish are much harder to catch than one injured or on its last leg.”
Incensed, as I often am, about injustices that could have and should have been stopped a long time ago, I spend my hours out of the water seeking the various ways we laypeople can play a part in preserving these creatures and their habitats. There is awareness, education, a bevy of shark and ocean conservation foundations doing extraordinary things, and then there is the emerging role of innovative blockchain technologies and Web3 collectives.
Most notable are the Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)’ ascendant role in education and fundraising. Organizations like Fins Attached have minted one-of-a-kind jpegs and videos to support expeditions, and other wildlife groups have banded together to form ConservatioNFT as a means to fund conservation initiatives globally.
Further, Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) Diatom has brought to life a digital token backed by plastic extracted from the ocean, while fellow DAO Moonjelly has put together the “Ocean Impact” NFT marketplace. Fishcoin is a Blockchain-based seafood tracking project to help keep the seafood industry accountable. Sustainable lifestyle brand United By Blue is using its NFT collection to raise money for ocean cleanup endeavors. Dutch company Waste2Wear produces fabrics from materials sourced from Blockchain-authenticated plastics. SelaLabs aims to tackle oil spill management and ensure that the cleanup processes remain corruption-free by using cryptocurrencies.
Those innovators occupy just the tip of the iceberg, or shall we say, a small ripple in a growing pond of ways blockchain technology is and can play a pivotal part in overcoming global challenges.
Nevertheless, the reflective process of shark familiarization and sea exploration offered something else I did not expect. I had long treasured the notion of disappearing like a weightless stick figure into the secret garden of life below the earth. I thought how enchanting it is to gently explore the marine community doing their thing far from the average naked eye. I reveled in slipping alongside the colorful beings, free from distraction and noise and problems of the above, with nothing but outstretched fingers and possibility.
Indeed, Paul isn’t alone in using the deep as a means of meditation and healing as a Veteran of the Armed Forces.
Programs for active-duty troops and Veterans inside aquarium tanks and expansive bodies of water as a kind of variation on the yoga are bountiful. It’s not just hanging out with the fish families and vibrant coral that has a calming effect, but the concept of carefully controlling your breathing becomes a self-sustaining therapy. The more one can experience how it feels to focus on nothing but buoyancy and maintaining breath with a regulator, the easier it is to reach that serene and measured place when ashore.
It is only the ache of time running out that prevents me from just being.
“We need to change now. If we don’t, we are all fucked because it is reaching a tipping point,” Paul warns. “A lot of the Atlantic Ocean algae is dead now, which will cripple the whole ecosystem. We must stop poisoning the ocean with pesticides, fungicides, pollution, and all that stuff. We are raping the ocean of its lifeforce, and that is it. The world will keep on ticking, but as humans, we all be dead. We have to change now.”